Stolen time

2nd January 2015 at 00:00

Teacher workloads are discussed more than the Dead Sea Scrolls - and justifiably so. Mission creep, burdensome bureaucracy, snake oil wheezes and shoddy administration conspire to choke every drop of joy and utility from the job. However, every time a teacher complains about long and useless meetings but sets pointless work for their students, a blogging fairy dies. And homework is a fertile field for such foolishness.

What's the point of homework? What end does it serve? There are many possibilities, from "finishing the work" to "practising skills demonstrated in class". Homework, like any form of work, can be a vehicle of value. But, like smashing rocks in a Siberian gulag, it can also be futile and back-breaking.

How often have you set homework that had little purpose beyond its own existence? My own answer would be very often. Some of it is horrifyingly irrelevant: colouring-in exercises for 11-year-olds studying the life of Buddha, or "imagine how Jesus felt on the cross and draw it" (both real examples). Some of it is merely tangential: "design your ideal bedroom" and similar. So much time wasted on so little.

This may seem harmless but we must never forget that time is one resource you don't get back. For kids who rely on education as their catapult from one tax bracket to the next, it's priceless. Some secondary schools set homework on the basis of one hour per subject per week. Given that this means time spent away from parents or helping in the house, nothing you require students to do should be less important than that.

I have no problem with setting challenging homework but I do disagree with the pickpocketing of family life to serve the requirements of a school's homework timetable. Ironically, such timetables are often produced to reassure anxious parents that the school has high standards; I'd rather be convinced that the homework was of a high standard. Research from the Education Endowment Foundation (bit.lyEEFhomework) suggests that homework has a lower impact on learning in the early years and more impact in secondary, where older children can potentially use it to deepen and reinforce understanding.

But note the use of "can". Homework set for its own sake is as useful as writing out lines. Some teachers I know never give it out, on the grounds that it just gives them one more reason to dole out detentions when it isn't completed. They will find few places to hide under the new regime of England's inspectorate Ofsted, where progress over time must be shown through (among other things) schoolbooks and, of course, homework.

Since a set of books takes at least an hour to mark, any school that demands teachers set a weekly dose of homework but doesn't allocate extra time to ensure it's assessed properly, well.it doesn't deserve to have any staff. So only set as much as they need and you can cope with. Anything else is just feeding the admin monster.

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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